Advocates say the state’s new task force to address the high rates of missing and murdered Indigenous people is a good first — but far from final — step to tackling the problem.
The task force Gov. Mark Gordon expectedly announced this spring will meet for the first time on Wednesday to begin to better understand the scope of the problem — one well known for many years in Indian Country, victim advocates say — in Wyoming and recommend ways to begin to address it.
While supporters have applauded Gordon’s move as a needed start, they say it won’t completely solve the problem of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls or drastically reduce the high rates of sexual and domestic violence they’re faced with.
“I think this is a really good first step for Wyoming to look at some very tangible ways it can be involved in addressing crime on the Wind River Reservation,” said Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne. “I think the more we start looking at issues, I think more things will come to light and I just hope my colleagues and I are up to the task of thinking about solutions.”
Wyoming’s attempt to better understand the issue comes amid heightened awareness nationwide, and as other states, like Minnesota, Montana and Washington, have taken steps to grapple with the issue. Congress has also started to look more seriously at addressing criminal justice in Indian Country through proposed legislation like Savanna’s Act.
More than four in five Indigenous women and men have experienced violence in their lifetime, according to a 2016 National Institute of Justice study. And according to a 2013 National Congress of American Indians policy brief, American Indians and Alaska Natives are 2.5 times as likely to experience violent crimes and at least twice more likely to experience rape or sexual assault compared to other races.
And of 5,712 cases of missing and murdered indigenous women reported in 2016, only 116 were entered in a Department of Justice database, according to a recent Urban Indian Health Institute report.
But in Wyoming, it’s unclear how many Indigenous people are missing or have been murdered.
“Our real goal is to figure out what we don’t know,” said Cara Chambers, chair of the task force and director of Victim Services in the Wyoming Attorney General’s office. “The big thought is that we don’t have data.”
More complete and detailed reporting of crimes and missing people, including entering race and ethnicity, to a national database would lead to a better understanding of the scope of the problem in Wyoming, Chambers said.
In addition, Ellis said better coordination between state and tribal officials when a child goes missing would help ensure that a missing Indigenous child is quickly reported to the state’s Amber Alert system.
“In those instances, the first minutes are critical,” she said.
Ellis, who sits on the Legislature’s Select Committee on Tribal Relations and is a citizen of the Navajo Nation, was also one of the authors of a 2015 congressional report on criminal justice and safety in Indigenous communities.
The task force’s first meeting will be at 11 a.m. Wednesday in Cheyenne. The time for the second meeting on Aug. 7 has yet to be determined. The two meetings will be held at the Division of Victim Services, on the second floor of 320 W. 25th St. in Cheyenne. Those who can’t attend can call in to the meeting at 307-777-7200.
At the very least, Chambers said the first meetings will be a good opportunity to “wrap our heads around how much of an issue this may be in our state” and to get those with a stake or expertise in the problem working together.
She said she hopes to continue meeting with the task force quarterly for a year.
The task force’s eight members and four ex-officio members include the state’s tribal liaisons, law enforcement officials and victim advocates.
In a Wednesday news release, Gordon said he’d meet with leaders of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes to discuss any recommendations that would require tribal cooperation.
Later in August in Fort Washakie, the task force will also present the Legislature’s Select Tribal Relations Committee with any recommendations requiring legislation.
When it comes to larger reforms, like untangling a confusing jurisdictional maze when it comes to investigating crimes committed against Indigenous people, it’s up to the federal government to act, Ellis said.
And any changes, she said, must include consultation and cooperation with tribal leaders to ensure they have a voice in solutions, as well as adequate funding and training for any changes.
“We definitely need their guidance,” she said. “The leadership that we need to hear from is at the tribal level.”
Still, while Ellis said she’s encouraged that state leaders are taking the first step, they can’t lose momentum.
State officials and the Legislature must continue to build on the task force’s work to have a positive impact, she said, adding that if state leaders do that, Wyoming can be seen as an example of how to effectively address the problem of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
“Some states, their first step was forming a task force and that was it,” she said. “Just a task force is not enough.”
Christine Wildcat, an incoming senior at the University of Wyoming who was one of the organizers of the event this spring where Gordon made the impromptu task force announcement, said when a woman or girl — who was a sister, daughter, mother, friend or teacher, for example — goes missing, it impacts a wide range of people.
“It’s not just affecting their family; it’s affecting the whole community,” said Wildcat, a citizen of the Northern Arapaho Tribe.
While Wildcat said she’s glad people are paying attention to the issue, she recognized that it’s a complex problem that requires more than state action to solve. One of the reasons she is passionate about the issue, she said, is that she has three younger sisters and many young cousins and would be devastated if they experienced violence.
“We want people to know this is an issue,” Wildcat said. “I think we’re taking the right steps in Wyoming.”